Why ‘S year’ iPhones are a big deal

Michael Si­mon sings the praises of Ap­ple’s ‘S’ iPhones

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Few things are more pre­dictable than the iPhone up­grade sched­ule. Even be­fore se­nior vice pres­i­dent of world wide mar­ket­ing Phil Schiller and Ap­ple’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent of soft­ware engi­neer­ing Craig Fed­erighi broke down ev­ery­thing new about the iPhone 6s to­ward the end of the com­pany’s ‘Hey Siri’ event, we al­ready knew what was com­ing – same de­sign, new fea­tures.

Ever since the iPhone 3GS, Ap­ple has used the year fol­low­ing a ma­jor iPhone re­design to fo­cus mostly on in­ter­nal im­prove­ments – things like the bat­tery, pro­ces­sor, and cam­era to breathe an­other 12 months of life into a fa­mil­iar en­clo­sure. It’s be­come so pre­dictable that ru­mour sites have all but stopped pub­lish­ing any­thing to the con­trary. For as long as the iPhone re­mains at the cen­tre of Ap­ple’s uni­verse, ev­ery model will have an ‘S’ year, and if you’re look­ing for a rad­i­cal de­sign change, you’re just go­ing to have to wait. But like the other ‘S’ mod­els that came be­fore it, the iPhone 6s is much more than the sum of its im­prove­ments.

Essence of ‘S’

The iPhone 3GS was a risky gam­bit. At a time when its An­droid com­peti­tors were just be­gin­ning to fig­ure out what made the iPhone tick, Ap­ple opted for a some­what muted model, keep­ing the same plas­tic de­sign and sim­ply adding a

faster chip, more RAM, and a bet­ter cam­era. Where the pre­vi­ous year’s model had im­proved on the orig­i­nal iPhone in vir­tu­ally ev­ery way, the 3GS was more of a dip than a splash.

But the iPhone 3GS wasn’t a stop­gap release. It might have stood for speed, but the ‘S’ was as mul­ti­fac­eted as the ‘i’ in iOS, bring­ing the kind of ad­vance­ments and tech­nolo­gies that took Ap­ple’s hand­set to new lev­els of per­for­mance and ef­fi­ciency. That first ‘S’ model was a ma­jor step to­ward turn­ing the iPhone from a mo­bile de­vice into some­thing greater, a ver­i­ta­ble com­puter in our pocket that could do amaz­ing things.

Even with the same de­sign, Ap­ple’s ‘S’ model phones have al­ways been game chang­ers in their own right – Siri on the 4s, Touch ID on the 5s – and the iPhone 6s con­tin­ues that tra­di­tion. Where other smart­phone man­u­fac­tur­ers are try­ing to push the bound­aries with big­ger mod­els ev­ery year, Ap­ple uses its ‘S’ mod­els to in­no­vate in­wardly, fo­cus­ing its ef­forts on carv­ing out a strong foun­da­tion for the fu­ture of its mo­bile ecosys­tem and let­ting the user ex­pe­ri­ence trump the de­sign.

Sneak peek

The ad­di­tion of 3D Touch means more to the fu­ture of iOS de­vices that the iPhone 6’s larger screen did, adding a new di­men­sion to multi-touch and open­ing up the screen in bold new ways. Much like you could see the fu­ture im­pli­ca­tions dur­ing the Siri demo, watch­ing Fed­erighi show off 3D Touch only scratched the sur­face of what it will be able to do.

On the Ap­ple Watch and 2015 MacBook, Force Touch is a neat fea­ture that adds a layer

of con­ve­nience, elim­i­nat­ing key­strokes and mouse clicks on the Mac and com­pen­sat­ing for the lack of screen real es­tate on the Watch. But while ev­ery­one as­sumed it would be a ‘me, too’ fea­ture that of­fered lit­tle in the way of ex­cite­ment, the im­ple­men­ta­tion on the iPhone is wildly more in­no­va­tive, to the point where Ap­ple felt the need to re­name it. 3D Touch isn’t just a gimmick to dis­tin­guish the iPhone 6s from its pre­de­ces­sor – it’s an en­tirely new in­put method that puts all phones be­fore it on a short path to be­com­ing ob­so­lete.

Much like Siri (which was the 4s’ mar­quee fea­ture) has ma­tured into a tech­nol­ogy pow­er­ful enough to con­trol vir­tu­ally ev­ery in­ter­face we use, in a few short years 3D Touch will be as trans­for­ma­tive as multi-touch was, ex­pand­ing the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of iOS be­yond to­day’s bound­aries and lim­i­ta­tions. It’s the kind of fea­ture that seems so ob­vi­ous, so sim­ple in ret­ro­spect that us­ing a de­vice that doesn’t have

it (like, say, the iPhone 6) will seem for­eign and an­ti­quated. It’s not just a rea­son to up­grade, it’s a leap for­ward in the evo­lu­tion of iOS.

Sec­ond com­ing

While its com­peti­tors are still scur­ry­ing to out­in­no­vate Ap­ple with curved screens and wire­less charg­ing, Ap­ple is stick­ing to a very reg­i­mented sched­ule of it­er­a­tion. And while the likes of Sam­sung and Mo­torola may think the ‘S’ year of­fers a chance to jump ahead in an off year, it’s ac­tu­ally the se­quel mod­els that have de­fined the iPhone and set the course for fu­ture re­vi­sions.

In the new iPhone 6s com­mer­cial, Ap­ple takes a crack at the per­cep­tion that just be­cause the ex­ter­nal de­sign hasn’t changed it’s not worth up­grad­ing. New de­signs are al­ways ex­cit­ing, and just like ev­ery­body else, I would love for Ap­ple to release a new one ev­ery 12 months, but as the com­mer­cial shows, Ap­ple’s ‘S’ phones can’t be re­duced to a bet­ter cam­era and speed­ier pro­ces­sor. They’re the real in­no­va­tors, and while the iPhone 6s might not have stolen the show yes­ter­day, you can bet that 3D Touch will be at the fore­front of ev­ery­thing that’s com­ing next.

So, when ev­ery­one is gear­ing up next Septem­ber to see what the iPhone 7 will look like, Ap­ple will al­ready be think­ing of how it will be­come even bet­ter. Even though it’s dressed in the same bor­ing clothes as last year.

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